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Learning to Say No

Earlier this week, I appeared on HuffPost Live, an online television channel, to talk about saying no to spending. Social situations make it difficult for people to admit among friends that they can’t afford whatever the social activity might be, such as dining out or going to a club. The discussion was couched in fashion. Working in the fashion industry, there seems to be quite a bit of social pressure to have the right clothes and accessories to fit in with colleagues. I don’t know anything about the fashion industry, but I do know how important it is to look the part when your goal is to move forward in any social or business environment.

I participated in a panel hosted by Nancy Redd that included Christina Anderson, the Fashion and Style editor for Huffington Post, Dr. Nancy Berk, a psychologist and author, Nathan Morris, a financial planner, and Veronica Dagher, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal whose article It’s Really OK to Say, ‘I Can’t Afford That’ inspired the topic for the show.

American consumers face pressure every day, whether from friends, the media, or societal expectations, to fit in. The human drive for the feeling of comfort in an environment or some kind of community drives us to make choices that move in that direction, even if those decisions can be harmful in the long run. It’s not a case of ignorance. We knowingly do things that harm our health every day, but we continue. The same is true about financial harm.

In order to feel accepted in a group, we want to act like a group. The problem is we can’t really see the true financial condition of those we emulate. If everyone on the block owns a Mercedes, it’s understandable that the one remaining household on the street feels inadequate for not being able to afford the same car. Many of the families, despite the outward display of wealth in the form of a car brand that has put a lot of marketing effort into making sure its vehicles are perceived as high-class, may be struggling financially. The car may be leased, and they might not be able to afford the payments. The families outwardly displaying their wealth might have no retirement plans, and their children might require loans to attend college. The pressure to appear the same as everyone else is strong enough that the financial priorities that aren’t outwardly facing often assume a lower priority.

This type of pressure manifests itself in early adolescence. Children at this age are often judgmental and cruel, and the pressure to be like others in a particular social group manifests in a big way. Kids who either refuse to conform to others’ expectations or can’t fit in due to their families’ financial constraints can become social outcasts. This doesn’t need to be damaging in the long run, but it can make life difficult for middle-schoolers. For some, this feeling — the need to fit in by adjusting outward appearances to be like others — never goes away.

If social groups weren’t enough, businesses whose primary goal is to make money have learned how to take advantage of the need to fit in. Marketing to children is so powerful because most parents are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their children happy. If the latest toy is perceived as being this year’s must-have at Christmas, it can be difficult to say, “No, we can’t afford it,” to a sweet child who has behaved all year. Parents have the responsibility to curb expectations and lead their children in such a way that they don’t need to care as much about outward appearances, fitting in, and resisting the highly-targeted and performance-tested marketing messages from a ever-widening array of media.

The Wall Street Journal articles offers some concrete advice for adults looking for new ways to feel comfortable saying no. Not wanting to be embarrassed is only one reason people don’t say no to spending in social situations, however. The article doesn’t address another important factor — not wanting to disappoint friends. Keeping up social relationships is an important part of having a fulfilling and happy life for most people, but it’s impossible if you turn down every request to get together for dinner because your budget doesn’t allow it.

Rather than feeling you need to say no all the time, change the conversation. Take initiative and suggest other ways of getting together and socializing that don’t require expensive restaurants or $15 drinks at the fanciest clubs. Organize a pot-luck dinner or a picnic in the park. Get together to play games. Attend a gallery opening. Find event in your community that don’t require an outlay of cash but still provides for a social experience. Rather than being the person saying no, you’re now the one with great ideas for activities, and you’re saving everyone money, and you’re not disappointing anyone.

The article suggests blaming your financial adviser when you need to say no to your friends. Punting responsibility is a quick way to get out of a sticky situation when you feel you need to give some kind of an explanation beyond “no.” Depending on how much you’re willing to share with your friends, you might want to say something along the lines of, “I’m saving money for x, so I can’t fit this into my budget this month. How about next month?” This shows that you, not your financial adviser, are responsible and in command of your money, and describes a healthy attitude towards savings. Plus, the word “no” triggers such negative responses in the brain, it’s better to avoid it and turn the conversation around in certain social situations.

And who knows — if you’re genuine and non-judgmental with your friends, your approach to saving money might have a good effect on your friends’ attitudes. They may think more about savings when they hear you are taking a positive approach to your money.

How do you say no to spending in social situations or to your children? Continue reading to watch the half-hour HuffPost Live segment, “You Can’t Afford That.”

You can also view the segment on HuffPost Live to read the interactive discussion that occurred during the broadcast.

If you didn’t see the question above: How do you say no to spending in social situations or to your children?

Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published September 29, 2012.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 wylerassociate

For me, it has become more easier as I have gotten older. I do a monthly budget for what I will spend each month fo groceries, gas, investments, travel, bills, miscellaneous expenses and I try to stay within that budget.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

“No” Respect. – That’s the ticket!
Each person in a partnered relationship has the absolute, unequivocal right to say no. Each person in a partnered relationship has an absolute, unequivocal obligation to respect that no.
Kids are different and must be taught that no is oftentimes a disappointing necessity.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Pretty cool that you got to participate in this. I’m glad I don’t have these problems. I can say no pretty easily and actually need to learn to say yes a bit more.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

Great question about how to pull your kids into the conversation. I’m proud of my 17 year old who seems to get it about stretching a dollar. She’s been pretty thrifty during this downturn – she appears to enjoy finding consignment clothing and seeing what she can put together. Our family works that way – buy off Craigslist rather than new, use the library where we can, and take care of what we have. The result? We’re richer than ever in terms of ability to do more and spend our money on what we really enjoy.

A recent experience disturbs me. High school is full of extra expenses – SATs, ACTs, year books, extra curricular activities, and don’t forget grad night. I give the full picture short shrift. My daughter’s tennis team requires new uniforms each year. The practice appears to be irresponsible and disrespectful of a parent’s spending priorities when last year’s uniform (if serviceable in function and team appearance) will work fine. The reason given was a sports committee requirement. Shucking out $67 for a hobby runs contrary to what I try to teach. Fast forward one month and we’re asked to donate another $50 to pay for coaches who aren’t paid by the public school. We already donated for transportation expenses. The example only illustrates the complexity of social pressures that can drive unnecessary spending. Credit to my daughter – she was ready to drop the sport. But that could affect college acceptance (more social pressure for later comment…)!

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Awesome to be the PF representative! My wife and I faced this situation years ago and in the end simply decided we need to cultivate a set of friends whose values are close to ours. If spending money is the price of keeping a friendship, I just question the value of the friendship…

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I have really noticed an increase in ads lately. Now, ads have been around for me since
I started watching TV as a kid, and I realize that news sites, search engines, bloggers,
and everyone providing a service on the internet has a right to sell space to pay for their
time and expertise, but really…..I was particularly surprised to see your ad for Christian
dating service ‘Christian Mingles’ with a headline that reads “Jesus Christ is Lord”. That
would, for me, take it out of the realm of advertising a dating service, and make it seem
like proselytizing. Even that is not as bad as an ad which ran on many blogs a week or
two ago, pushing 12% private mortgage notes as safe bank accounts. Even if you
bloggers collectively don’t own your blogs any more, how about exerting a bit of
positive influence? Otherwise many PF blogs will SOON go the way of ‘Smart Money’…….

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avatar 7 Luke Landes


The AdSense ads you see are targeted towards users. The ads you see are not the same ads other people see. that isn’t to say I have any control over it, but I don’t know if anyone sees an offensive ad until I’m made aware of it. I’d be quite surprised to see an ad like that here on shizennougyou, but the AdSense ads are based on visitors’ own demographics.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

In my case, I just become honest to my family or friends and just say “no, I can’t afford it at this moment.” or “No, I don’t want to do that. It’s not in my spending plan” I don’t think this will be much of an issue with me and my future child. I have no problem saying “no” and explaining why I said “no”. Fortunately, my personality type doesn’t really care about the opinion of others so, I can take what ever the response to my words/actions are. I figure my kid will get over it.. what else is she going to do? Cry? Throw a fit? That will just make me laugh :-)

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avatar 9 Ceecee

I am almost the opposite…..I don’t understand people who say “yes” when they know they can’t afford it. Like the woman I know who just bought a Jaguar but can’t afford a place to live. Then again, I’m just an aging “hippie chick” who doesn’t always relate to the consumer culture.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

It’s so, so hard to be a kid. I feel like now that I don’t have middle school pressures (or middle-school like pressures!) that I can be in charge of how I spend my discretionary income, and can hope that saying no doesn’t end up with my friends stop asking!

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avatar 11 Cejay

It is easier when I have a large goal that I want to achieve. That makes it easier to say that I cannot afford that. But now I really do not have a large goal and it is hard to say no. I am finding it hardest in my church. Kids sell things for their school and they want you to buy, countless baby and baby showers. Not to mention lunches out after church and the social things we have in my women’s group. If I say that I want a “insert what I want” and that I am saving for it so I can live debt free I have people respond that I should get it now. Life is for the living and other comments.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

My problem is not saying “no” in social situations as I learned to do it a long time ago. You just have to say “no.” In fact, I am pretty honest with my family and friends. If I cannot afford it, I will say so. No biggie. But when it comes to saying “no” to myself, I am as weak as I can be. It is so much easier to come up with excuses and lie to myself just to get what I want. And I am not a kid. Well… maybe sometimes. :)

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avatar 13 qixx

I find that getting parents to say no to themselves is quite often harder than saying no to kids. Last week i was in a toy store. Not 2 aisles after telling my son we can’t afford that i’m saying we could pick up a game for me. What a bad example. Good for me saying to pickup the game was just in my head. I did leave with only a Christmas wish list. Many i’ve seen in the same situation leave with something for themselves.

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